Wednesday 11 December 2019

Whelan in the years: venue that rocked the capital

Glen Hansard and Mundy have long been familiar faces among Whelan's punters
Glen Hansard and Mundy have long been familiar faces among Whelan's punters
Whelan's bar and venue, Dublin

Tanya Sweeney

In 2003, Pixies' frontman Frank Black made a covert trip to Dublin's Wexford Street, whereupon he staged an impromptu sing-along in Whelan's with his pals. Nothing extraordinary there… until you realise that the pals included the Frames' Glen Hansard and singer-songwriter Mundy.

The evening became the stuff of legend among Irish music fans, yet scratch the surface of the music venue's 25-year history and you'll find that this collaboration was just another day at the office.

There was the time The Strokes came in just to party; the time Sinead O'Connor played guitar to ten people in the venue's infamous 'band room'; the time the Arctic Monkeys made their riotous Dublin debut to 140 punters; the time Jeff Buckley played to a handful of curious (if largely indifferent) drinkers; the times when record deals were struck, collaborations were born and kinships among local bedroom troubadours were forged.

Few really know how or why Whelan's on Wexford Street came to enjoy such an exalted position as the hub of Ireland's music industry in the late '90s/early Noughties. Yet, by then the venue became synonymous with Ireland's DIY singer-songwriter scene.

"Whelan's was the Basilica of the industry when I moved from Cork to Dublin seventeen years ago," recalls Angela Dorgan of First Music Contact. "The other venues in Dublin were really just churches."

The venue grew from relatively small acorns in 1989; originally, the bar was named Bourke's on Wexford Street, next to the Wexford Inn (which is now Opium restaurant). With the colourful Stephen Bourke presiding over events, Bourke's was the stuff of legend in its own right.

Behind Bourke's lay a fallow yard, and this in turn became Whelan's venue. Dave Allen, now booker for the venue, arrived there initially as a sound engineer in 1990.

"When I started it would have had plenty of trad/roots and covers' bands playing here," he recalls. "The rock venues at the time would have been the Baggot Inn, Charlie's or the New Inn. As each new venue like the Rock Garden opened we wondered, 'will they take our business?' Luckily, they didn't."

What happened next was something of a perfect storm. Under Allen's tenure (and later, with the help of fellow bookers Derek Nally and John Hennessy), Whelan's forged a reputation as a venue that allowed international up-and-comers to cut their teeth. As McGonagle's and The Baggot Inn lost their stranglehold on the live music scene in the early '90s, Dublin's new wave of musicians were seemingly lacking a spiritual home. By then, the international A&R hunt was on, with bigwigs like Island Records' Muff Winwood and Atlantic founder Ahmet Ertegun parachuting into Dublin regularly in search of new blood. It was an exciting time to be young and in a band.

Dorgan recalls how in the late '90s and early Noughties, Whelan's became 'the church at which you attended Father Glen of Hansard'.

Certainly, Hansard's close association with the venue hasn't harmed it one bit. Popular and well liked among other local musicians, he counted the likes of Mundy, Paddy Casey, Steve Wall, Mark Geary, Declan O'Rourke, Gemma Hayes, Damien Rice, Josh Ritter, Lisa Hannigan, David Kitt, Damien Dempsey and Maria Doyle-Kennedy as comrades. And while some denounced the set of musicians as 'the scene that congratulates itself', there was certainly strength in those numbers.

"In the early Noughties, people would talk about the 'Whelan's 'clique', but if you look at the listings of the time, you'll have seen so much other stuff," says John Hennessy, former booker who is now booking for Dolan's and Kasbah Club in Limerick.

"Still, I think getting these acts on the way up and then seeing them do well creates its own special vibe.

"Plus, there was money in the country, so it wasn't unusual to see any of these musicians just hanging out and drinking in the venue any night of the week."

With no real 'backstage' or cordoned-off area to speak of, Whelan's became a great equaliser. Punters and musicians partied side by side.

No-one can dispute the venue's rich legacy down the years, but how important is Whelan's as a venue 25 years after its inception?

Does it merely trade on all those former glories or do a new wave of Irish musicians have a similar affinity with the place?

"It's still hugely important, but it's by no means the only gig in town anymore," concludes Dorgan. "No-one talks with as much reverence about venues like the Red Box or the Temple Bar Music Centre, but that's the magic fairy dust that Whelan's has.

"Now, there's a gang (of musicians) in the Workman's Club, and a gang in the Twisted Pepper," she adds.

"You probably couldn't walk into a bar these days and just hang with Kodaline. Nowadays, there's a certain nostalgia or loyalty attached to Whelan's. There are young bands in Ireland that really, really want to play Whelan's, and have no real idea why. To this day, that's what the venue is for: getting that first glimpse of a new act and seeing a glimmer of magic."

As part of their 25th anniversary celebrations, Whelan's are hosting several special live events. See www.whelanslive.com.

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